The obvious answer to “What goes into the perfect query letter?” is there is no such beast.
While this is a natural follow up to the discussion of why getting rejected quickly is not all bad news, this is also spurred on by the perception that an email query does not need as much attention as a printed query.
Au contraire! The email query needs as much care, if not more, than a print query. The reader of an email query is used to moving quickly, making decisions quickly, and if your email query is obviously some mass emailing blast, or hugely terse, such as “Attached is my manuscript” and nothing else, you can bet that the reaction will be hugely negative and the ability to hit delete is even easier than crumpling a piece of paper and tossing it in the circular filing cabinet on the floor.
A few startups will read a bit of every manuscript sent in. We do this on the off chance there is a gem in there. But, we also read the ones that have an appealing query first!
The reason there is no such thing as a perfect query is related to the fast rejections discussion. There will be times that no matter how well crafted the query, the editor simply knows this is not for him/her. But, if the query is well crafted, at least the rejection will be for the right reasons. I great query will often generate, at a minimum, a real response rather than a generic rejection.
So, if not perfect, what should a good query include?
The obvious: It should include everything that any posted submission guidelines ask for. Really, how tough can this be? Yet, a surprising number of queries do not meet this first bar. Almost every agency and publisher in existence today has a website (your should be nervous if they don’t!) and will have those guidelines posted there.
Beyond that, consider the following:
A short, pungent description of what the book is about
Identify the audience your book is aimed at (even if you think it is obvious).
Be able to tell the editor what makes this novel different from others in the genre. Even if you don’t include novels that are similar, be well informed as to what the competition is and how well it did. Be aware of market saturation and be prepared to explain how this will not be mixed in with a bunch books that are trying to follow the market.
Credentials. Yeah, I hear many of you cry out, I don’t have any. Sure you do. Credentials include not just writing, but marketing. Or if you are an artist it may include the ability to illustrate the piece, or create a line of merchandise on your own that you will tie to the novel. For marketing, don’t just say “I am savvy with Facebook and will help market it there.” Yeah, you and 900 million others. Credentials need to be different. But, no matter what, the credentials need to show enthusiasm for writing. The truth is any publisher/agent/editor wants someone who will write more than one novel and has the writing discipline.
That is the content, but don’t forget that the query letter is a window to your writing skill. That includes Grammar. It includes “show don’t tell” in a microcosm. It includes avoiding any number of silly mistakes. I have seen queries that had the protagonist reading Latin and the Latin phrase used was wrong. Or a historical novel where the piece of history noted in the query was wrong.
Your base query letter should take several days to get right. Edit it as if you were submitting it for a short story prize. Edit it as if you were spending a hundred dollars on each letter. You don’t want to waste it.
Write a lot of them for practice. Each should be different. Set them aside for a couple of weeks and then read them and pick out the best. Have someone who has not read your novel read the query, or queries.
Finally, don’t wait for answers to your queries. Get back to writing the next novel.